Monday, November 16, 2020

San Sebastian del Oeste Part 6 of 6: The fascinating historical artifacts of Hotel Hacienda Matel

A cow's skull decorates a well near the entrance of the hotel. We visited Hotel Hacienda Matel during our day-trip to San Sebastian del Oeste. While there are a number haciendas in the area dating to the colonial and early-Republic eras, this one was built in 2008. It is a product of San Sebastian's growing tourist trade. The architectural design of the hotel imitates historical haciendas and the owners have filled it with artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hotel Hacienda Matel is an interesting place in a lovely setting and is worth a visit if you get to San Sebastian. To find the hotel on a Google map of San Sebastian del Oeste, click here.

Hacienda Matel's Exterior

The hotel's centerpiece is a fair imitation of an historic casa grande. Like the casas grandes (big houses) it simulates, the rectangular building is built around an open central courtyard, accessed through an impressive gate. On each corner are cylindrical stone structures which imitate the bastions found on many historical haciendas. However, Hacienda Matel's bastions do not contain the gun slits used to defend against indigenous warriors or roving bandits. 

This cannon is one of several that guard the approaches to the casa grande. The hotel is situated near the head of a heavily-wooded arroyo about half a mile from San Sebastian's central plaza. Some might find it odd for a civilian hacienda to possess artillery, but this was not uncommon in the old days. Regular troops were scarce on the frontiers of Nueva España and the early Mexican Republic. Such troops were usually poorly paid and indifferently led. In addition, they were often posted at a considerable distance from the haciendas and settlements that might need their help. 

To respond to frontier security needs, while keeping costs down, the Spanish Crown sometimes awarded military commissions to hacendados (hacienda owners). In return they were required to form militia units from among their own workers and the men of nearby pueblos. These irregular cavalry units were often the only real protection from bandits and native revolts. This method of maintaining order dates back to Medieval Europe. The more remote the hacienda, the more the hacendado came to resemble a feudal lord in his manor. 

A luxurious carriage sits in the entrance to the casa grande's courtyard. In a classic hacienda, an entranceway like this is called a zaguan. The carriage is one of two at the hotel. Vehicles like this would have been used to transport the hacendado and his family. Such a carriage would have been considerably more comfortable than traveling by horseback or by the two-wheeled oxcarts called carretas. Normally, a stable with fine horses would have been situated close to an historic casa grande. I didn't see anything resembling a stable at the hotel, but I presume that guests wanting to go for a horseback ride can make arrangements through the staff.

The courtyard has an authentic feel, except for the kiosco. The surface is cobblestone and the four sides are bordered by open-air arcades supported by arched portales. Just like an historic casa grande, most of the rooms can be accessed from the arcades. The kiosco (gazebo) in the center of the courtyard is an anachronism. At the 100+ historic haciendas I have visited, I can't recall ever finding one of these in the courtyard of a casa grande

A kiosco (gazebo or bandstand) is typically found in the central plaza of a pueblo, town, or city. During the French Intervention of 1862-67, an Austrian nobleman named Maximilian and his wife Carlota briefly ruled Mexico as Emperor and Empress. It was they who popularized the idea of placing kioscos in plazas. Today, from the tiniest pueblos to the greatest cities, almost every plaza has one. However, you will rarely, if ever, find a kiosco in the casa grande courtyard of an authentic Mexican hacienda.

A handcrafted bench sits against an arcade wall. This antique piece of furniture is typical of the rough furnishings found at the more remote haciendas. More elegant furniture was prohibitively expensive to import. Hacendados often had to make do with what could be produced by their own craftsmen in the hacienda's workshops. Self-sufficiency was a necessity. In addition to a carpenter. there might also be a blacksmith, a leatherworker, and various other kinds of skilled workers, depending upon the hacienda's focus of production. 

These craftsmen often lived with their families in small, one-room cottages within the boundaries of the estate. They were called peones acasillados because their housing was provided as part of their compensation. Field workers and day laborers generally lived in pueblos some distance away rather than on the hacienda itself. The workers at today's Hotel Hacienda Matel all live in or around San Sebastian. No accommodations for peones acasillados were included by hotel's designers.

Interior of the casa grande

A spacious dining room was one of a casa grande's typical feature. hacendado and his family dined on food produced at the estate, along with venison, fish from local streams, or game birds. They might be joined at their table by a resident priest or a school teacher employed by the hacienda, as well as any passing travelers who might provide news of the outside world. 

The floor is covered by the same tiles found in the arcades. Tile floors, often in artistic designs, can be found in most haciendas, even those in ruins. Made from clay that has been fired and glazed, the tiles could often be locally manufactured. The floors they covered were easy to sweep and mop and were not susceptible to termites or other insect damage.

One of the hotel's eight bedrooms.  The layout and furnishings are similar to those I have seen in historic casas grandes. Until the 20th century, central heating by gas or electricity was practically unknown in rural Mexico, so a fireplace would have been important for chilly evenings. The small round table under the window is made in a style known as equipale that dates back to Aztec times.

A large wood and metal armoire serves to store clothes and other items. Given its blue-green patina, the metal is probably copper sheeting. You generally don't find clothes closets in haciendas from the 19th century or earlier. Instead, hacendados furnished their casas grandes with armoires. This kind of furniture dates back to the 17th century and the name comes from armorium, a Latin word for a chest used to store armor and weapons.

A cash register from the late 19th or early 20th century. Given the dollars and cents denominations, this one was clearly imported from the U.S. The cash register was invented in America by James Ritty, a saloonkeeper in Dayton, Ohio. He received a patent in 1878 for what he called an "incorruptible cashier". Apparently he was fed up with employees of his saloon pilfering his profits. A few years after its founding, Ritty's cash register company was bought out by John Patterson, one of its first customers. He renamed it the National Cash Register Company. Around the turn of the 20th century, one of Patterson's agents named Parker introduced the cash register to Mexico, selling 118 of them to various companies.

A highly decorated telephone sits on a small table in the hotel's lobby. The first telephone was invented in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell, who later formed the American Bell Telephone Company. A subsidiary of that company began operations in Mexico City on May 14, 1883. The first telephone in San Sebastian del Oeste was installed in the late 19th century at Hacienda Jalisco, a silver ore processing center just outside of the pueblo. The telephone above is obviously a product of the early 20th century, because the first rotary-dial phone was not invented until 1919.

A Victor III disc phonograph, circa 1907, with its huge tuba-like speaker. The phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. An improved version, called a gramaphone, was produced by the Alexander Graham Bell Laboratory in the 1880s. In the 1890s, Emile Berliner transformed the gramaphone again by introducing flat, grooved, vinyl disks on which the sound was recorded. The flat disks came to be called "records" and the gramaphone that played them became known as a "record player". The first sound recordings in Mexico were made in Mexico City in 1903. 

An early Singer sewing machineIsaac Singer first established his sewing machine company in 1851. His early focus was on large machines for textile manufacturing. In 1890, the Singer Company began operations in Mexico. In 1910, Singer revolutionized the business by introducing the electric-powered sewing machine for the home. However, the Mexican Revolution also began in that year, and foreign-owned corporations were often the focus of revolutionary ire. Singer solved this problem by associating its machines with "modern womanhood", thus gaining favor with the new revolutionary government.

Charcoal heated iron, also called a "box" ironThe charcoal iron was used in Mexico and many other countries for centuries. The heat was produced by raising the lid on top and placing glowing coals inside the iron. Holes on the sides allowed the charcoal smoke to escape. The idea of using heat to smooth cloth goes back at least 2000 years. In the first century AD, the Chinese used pans filled with hot coats to press cloth smooth. The Dutch imported the idea in the 17th century and produced the first "box" irons. Some of these early irons probably reached colonial Mexico in the 17th or early 18th century.

Hacienda Matel's small chapel. The chapel is located on a ledge just above the casa grande and can seat about a dozen people. Since the Church was always closely associated with the power of the ruling class in Mexico, it should be no surprise that nearly every hacienda had a capilla (chapel) attached to, or close by, its casa grande. After the Revolution, such chapels often were adopted by local people as the churches for the pueblos that grew up around the ruins of the old haciendas. Like Hacienda Matel, this chapel is an invention of the 21st century. 

A bit of anti-clerical Mexican humor. An obviously inebriated skeleton figure paws at a priest sitting in his confessional box. The use of skeletons to poke fun at the pretensions of the powerful has a long history. Guadalupe Posada was a 19th century political cartoonist who invented the famous skeleton figures known as catrinas. Posada's cartoons must have struck a nerve, because he had to flee his hometown of Aguascalientes as a result of his work.

While strong religious beliefs (primarily Catholic) still exist within much of Mexico's population, there has long existed an undercurrent of hostility toward the organized Church. This is the result of the close relationship between the Church hierarchy and secular power. Church organizations were allowed to use forced indigenous labor to build their cathedrals and convents. In addition, some religious Orders (particularly the Jesuits) owned haciendas where workers were treated no better than on estates that had secular owners.

A tough-looking group of Mexican revolutionaries. The man holding the sword may be an officer. The rifles they are holding are mostly Winchesters, the favored weapon of revolutionary soldiers. Regular army soldiers were generally better-armed with Mauser rifles made in Mexico or Germany. This is one of several photos from the Revolution that are posted on the walls of the small cantina next to the chapel.

A heavily-armed soldadera sits demurely on a porch railing. She clutches a Winchester and wears two cartridge belts across her shoulders and three around her waist. Clearly this soldadera means business. On the other hand, her expression is one of a quiet pensiveness. Perhaps she is wondering why the men around her always seem a little nervous.

General Emiliano Zapata (front, center) surrounded by his officers and advisors. Emiliano Zapata was perhaps the only true social revolutionary among the top leaders during the Revolution. While a lot of the others seemed more interested in personal power than revolutionary ideals, Zapata really believed in his slogan "Tierra y Libertad" (Land and Liberty) and put it into effect in the areas under his control. 

Zapata's followers adored him. One of his most famous quotes was "I'd rather die on my feet than live always on my knees." Like many other leaders of the Mexican Revolution, Zapata died violently. In 1919, he was lured into an ambush and assassinated by conspirators linked to his rival, Venustiano Carranza. For many years afterward, campesinos in southern Mexico insisted that he was still alive and could sometimes be seen riding the hidden mountain trails of his home state of Morelos.

Another carriage, this time a convertible. It was not unheard of for a hacendado to possess more than one carriage. At Hacienda Calera, near Guadalajara, there is a carriage house with spaces for ten. This vehicle is parked in front of the chapel above the casa grande.

Brass bell with the hacienda's name and an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Similar bells were essential features of hacienda life from the earliest years of colonial Mexico. They were not only mounted in church steeples but often on the casa grande itself. Few peones possessed watches, so bells were used to summon them to work, to call meal breaks, and to end the day. They were also used to warn of dangers such as fire or the approach of bandits.

This completes Part 6 of my San Sebastian del Oeste series and ends the series itself. I hope you have enjoyed this posting, as well as the previous five. If so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


Sunday, November 1, 2020

Dia de los Muertos, a tradition both solemn and hilarious

Skulls and white candles are traditional elements of Dia de los Muertos. Each November 2, Mexico celebrates its unique Day of the Dead fiesta. Although the day falls just after Halloween, it has no connection to that rather empty and highly commercialized north-of-the-border event. Unfortunately, the current pandemic has caused the cancellation of most of this year's traditional fiesta activities--particularly those involving large groups. However, an elaborate Dia de los Muertos altar recently appeared on the corner of Calle Galleana and Calle Venustiano Carranza, near my home in Ajijic

My encounter with the altar inspired this posting. The fiesta has some solemn elements, but mostly it is a wildly colorful and decidedly hilarious event. I hope this lightens up the grimness of these times for members of my blog audience. The first section of this posting will focus on the altar that my Mexican neighbors erected in the last few days. The remainder of the photos will show some of the activities of the 2019 fiesta. These earlier photos have never before been published.

Altar in my neighborhood

My neighborhood's altar contains most of the traditional elements. The first thing I noticed was the large group of photographs taped to the stone wall on either side of the cross. These are the images of family members who have passed away, either recently or some time ago. The large number of photos indicates that this was truly a neighborhood project, rather than one created solely by an individual family. 

Although there is a cross at the top, a great many features of the altar--as well as the Day of the Dead itself--have their origins in ancient pre-hispanic religious beliefs. For example, the pyramidal, three-step altar itself is a structure with antecedents dating back as far as 1500 BC. 


A few of the 20+ photos appearing on the wall and on the altar's steps. The people pictured are of all ages, from elderly to relatively young. I was particularly struck by the woman shown in the lower right. She is older and, like many women of her age, she wears a traditional rebozo (shawl) draped over her head and shoulders. Oddly, she hides her face behind a piece of the rebozo, as if embarrassed to be photographed. 

To her left is a man of middle age, sporting a mustache and wearing a white cowboy hat and a plaid shirt. In his dress and general appearance, he closely resembles hundreds of rural men I have encountered in my travels around Mexico. In the upper left is a photo of a young man, possibly a teenager. It is sad to think that one so young should appear above this altar. All these people were obviously loved by families who want to preserve their memories.

On top of the altar, just below the cross, is a colorful catrina. This is one element of the overall altar that does not have ancient roots. Catrinas were the invention of a 19th century political cartoonist named Guadalupe Posada. He created thousands of drawings and engravings of skeletal figures. He used the figures to lampoon the pretensions of the newly-rich upper classes who prospered under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, while the vast majority of Mexico's population remained desperately poor. 

Catrinas fell out of favor for a while after Posada died. However, they became popular again in the 1930s and remain so today. Over time, catrinas have gradually become associated with the Day of the Dead, but the only real connection between the two are the images of skeletons. The fiesta pre-dates catrinas by centuries, if not millennia. 

This little fellow reminded me of the Disney cartoon character Pluto the Dog. Made of paper mache, he looks to have imbibed more than his share of tequila. Dogs in general can be pretty goofy, but Mexican dogs seem to have that quality in abundance. His presence on the altar may indicate that one of the people pictured had a similar dog. Alternatively, he may represent a much-loved but now deceased dog, who once could be found lounging on the front stoop of his master. Behind the pooch is one of several cardboard guitars, an indication that one of the dearly departed was a musician.

Sugar skull, decorated with blue frosting and red flowers. Sugar skulls are another traditional feature of these altars. The skulls are made from granulated sugar that is pressed into molds. They represent the souls of the dead and some have a name written in frosting on the forehead, although this one does not. 

The sugar skulls originated in the 17th century when Italian missionaries arrived in Mexico. The indigenous people wanted to create decorations for the Day of the Dead, but had very little money. One thing they did have was lots of sugar, since sugar cane was grown and processed all over Mexico. The Italians showed them how to make skull molds and the little skulls soon became widely used on Day of the Dead altars. The skulls are often decorated with feathers, foil or other inedible items and are not necessarily created for human consumption. 

This small vignette was arranged on the middle step of the altar. The photo shows a pretty young woman, probably in her teens or early 20s. The smaller photo slipped into the corner of the frame may be her mother, or possibly an older sister. Several traditional items surround the pictures. The white candle helps guide the visiting spirit to the altar. The tiny skull to the right of the candle represents the soul of a child. The cup on the right may represent the favorite beverage of the person in the photo. It has been placed there to provide refreshment after her long journey home from the spirit world. Behind the candle is a marigold flower, which pre-hispanic people considered to be a symbol of death. 

On one side of the altar, a soap bar and pan of water stand in front of a mirror. Since the altar is about welcoming home visiting spirits, it is assumed that they will want to clean up after such a long journey. Such hospitality is considered a social requirement in Mexico. 

Ajijic's Panteon

A highly decorated gravesite at Ajijic's Panteon. In Ajijic, the Dia de los Muertos activities start at the Panteon (community graveyard). When we moved to Mexico and attended our first Day of the Dead event, we assumed the mood at the cemetery would be solemn and were somewhat concerned about intruding. To our surprise, we found a full-on party, with mariachi music, dancing, food. The participants often invited us to share a cold beer or shots of tequila. Now this was a fiesta I could get behind!

An elderly woman rests quietly beside a grave decorated with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Erupting all around her were laughter, music from multiple bands (all playing different songs) and general chaos. Her solemnity was so out of place that I had to take her photo. Similar to New Orleans, graves in Mexico are often elaborate above-ground structures.

A mother applies face paint to her daughter. In previous centuries, people wore masks to these celebrations. However, the custom today is to use white and black makeup to create a skull face. On this base, flowers or other colorful images are painted. The only limit is the imagination of the person applying the paint. This painstaking process can take considerable time, depending on how elaborate the wearer wants it to be. 

Three young women show off their face paint. As it happened, they were posing as a friend photographed them. I just took advantage of the moment to grab a quick shot of my own and they didn't mind. I have found the Day of the Dead to be one of the easiest places to take "people shots." Not only is the mood festive, but everyone wants to show off their face paint or an unusual costume.

Sawdust street art on Calle Parroquia

Sawdust paintings filled Calle Parroquia, along the south side of Ajijic Plaza. Still another tradition of this fiesta is to create images in the street made from colored sawdust. Calle Parroquia contained eight or ten of these large creations. This one is dedicated to Mictlán, which was the Aztec underworld and the final destination for the dead. 

Some of the sawdust creations were sponsored by local businesses. Edith's Salon was responsible for this Dia de los Muertos participant made up with face paint. For all the work that goes into creating these images, they will all be gone in a few hours.

After dark in Chapala

A tall and fantastically costumed catrina stretches out a bony hand in greeting. Each community along the shore of Lake Chapala sponsors its own celebration. Usually we start at the Ajijic Panteon, follow the parade from there to the Ajijic Plaza, then head a few miles east to Chapala, which holds the biggest event on the lake's North Shore. 

The City of Chapala usually sets aside several blocks of its main street for Day of the Dead activities. These include scores of highly imaginative altars, a milling crowd of hundreds wearing costumes and face paint, and a big candle-lit parade. The festivities usually continue long after Carole and I finally head home.

Two members of the foreign community get into the spirit of the event. Most of the foreigners here are Canadians or Americans, but some are Europeans or Asians. Many attend the wide variety of fiestas held during the year and often become participants themselves. 

A young girl lights candles in front of one of the many altars along the street. The candles are arranged in the shape of a cross in the middle of a marigold-petal pathway ending at the altar. The cross is generally thought of as a Christian symbol. However, to pre-hispanic people it represented the Four Cardinal Directions, each dominated by a different one of of their many gods. The marigold path is intended to lead the spirits to the altar and the candles help light the way.

One of the participants in the Chapala parade paused to pose for me. Her flowered head dress forms a spectacular sunburst. There were many other amazing costumes, head dresses, and painted faces at this event, but I thought this pretty young woman was one of the best.

This completes my posting on the 2019 and 2020 Day of the Dead fiestas. I hope that it has brightened your day during these hard times. If you would like to leave any thoughts or questions, please use the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comment section, PLEASE include your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim